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War On Drugs, Undercover Cop and the Philippines

The recent publication of my book ‘Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story‘ has opened up an interesting debate about the “war on drugs,” undercover policing and related issues.

This is the first in a series of articles about that debate and some other issues raised by reviews of my book.

What does the War on Drugs, an Undercover Cop and the Philippines have in common?

There is a certain irony in a British ex-undercover cop living in the Philippines. He went undercover on one of the world’s largest drug busts, Operation Julie, and now advocates decriminalization along the lines of the example set by Portugal. Social media is inundated with #warondrugs hashtags associated with President Duterte of the Philippines; all critical messages aimed at changing drug policy and stopping alleged extra-judicial killings.

The irony is clear to me as I am that former undercover cop. Some force is also lent to the irony when you learn that I was also a London- based criminal defence barrister. I believe in the rule of law.

The people who inhabit this archipelago of some seven thousand islands are among some of the friendliest, hard-working peoples on this planet. Many of them live in difficult conditions. Many live in makeshift shanty homes with no running water nor electricity. Poverty sits jowl by jowl alongside affluence. The curse of shabu not only has caused devastation among its users but has created a culture of corruption involving the highest tiers of Philippines society. Duterte wants to stop it. The overwhelming majority of the populace back him.

President Rodrigo Duterte is a “street fighter” type of politician. He does not mince words and is a man of action. The people love him because he does not act out of motives of self-aggrandisement but wants to see a better future for this wonderful, beautiful country. The “war on drugs” is not the only issue he has to deal with. The terrorist threat from the mountain hideouts of the Islamic Abu Sayyaf is a real one. Then there is the infrastructure and that is a story in itself, suffice to say that Filipinos deserve an infrastructure that means there are less brownouts, better roads and a faster, more reliable internet service to mention a few issues.

These people are from stupid, they know their new President is not perfect but he is a breath of fresh air to them promising to sweep away the influence of the oligarchs. Almost to a man and woman, they are relishing that prospect and who can blame them. Go study the history of this country! They also want you, the foreigner to butt out. They resent the interference in domestic affairs especially when it is based on ignorance of the true facts.

And what are the true facts? It is difficult to know. One thing is clear – there appears to be an orchestrated campaign against this democratically elected President. The people behind this campaign are no doubt those most affected by the loss of influence and privilege they enjoyed before Duterte was swept to power. Many lesser personalities would wilt in the face of these opponents, not this president. He is clearly on a mission to conduct a root and branch reform of the worst aspects of corruption Filipino style.

Discovering the truth in this country is no easier than it is in many others. Yet, the people here know that many of the allegations about extra-judicial killing are untrue. They know that many of those killings have been carried out by rival drug lords eliminating the competition. It is no help that the situation is often misreported. Misleading headlines are common place and only today the BBC reported under a headline “Philippines President Duterte ‘once killed man with Uzi.’” What followed was an account of testimony by a self-confessed former death squad member in a Senate inquiry on extra-judicial killings. His evidence implicated Duterte, in his former role as Mayor of Davao, in several killings including targeting the body guards of a former political rival. It was interesting to note the son of this rival challenged the account relating to his father’s bodyguards. He was reported as saying, “I don’t know what this guy [the witness] is talking about.”

The conflicts unmasked in the power struggle make Machiavelli look like Bambi. The Senate inquiry is led by Leila de Lima, a strong critic of President Duterte, and has been accused by him of having links to the illegal drug trade, something she denies. However, a Senate panel is currently tasked with investigating these complaints.

It is a pity that all these drug-related issues are diverting resources away from other serious matters such as the ISIS influenced Abu Sayyaf terrorist movement in the far south of the Philippines, the economy, the Spratley Island spat with China and of course the infrastructure.

The anti-“war on drugs” movement certainly has a valid point about the waste of lives and resources. If asked, I would suggest the President, his advisors and the good people of the Philippines study closely all the literature about Portugal’s decriminalization program.

They may learn that the focus must be on the health of users; users are not subjected to the criminal justice system but traffickers in narcotics are still liable to criminal sanctions. Some advocate for regulation of the market in drugs in the same way alcohol is regulated. Some of those pro-regulation proponents include law enforcement officers; one of them is another former Brit undercover cop. I remain to be convinced of that option. He (the former cop) pointed me to a website to assist in my research into regulation. I am compelled to say that his argument is not enhanced by terms such as “nuanced regulation.” What does that mean?

Let’s not get carried away by the rush to decriminalize and regulate drugs. There is a tendency by the drug regulation lobby to brush aside one essential truth about drugs. They can be, and often are, harmful. Having said that, the continuance of the “war on drugs” is a busted flush. No country in the world better typifies that than here in the Philippines.




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  1. Tim Rundall Tim Rundall

    It seems to me that, while neither the Portuguese, nor the Swiss, nor perhaps the Dutch models of ‘decriminalised’ drugs/drug use may be perfect, that is not a good enough reason to delay adopting them in some form, with an aim of improving that model over time with the benefit of experience, and a sincere commitment to flexibility over dogma. The current situation, seen in varying degrees all over the world, where dogma is king and punishment is seen as an answer to the drug problem, simply does not work and may in fact assist the criminal elements behind drug trafficking.

    Two things need to be recognised and accepted – firstly that the use of drugs will continue regardless of any laws, any moral arguments, and any amount of anti-drug propaganda or legislation; the reasons may be complex (perhaps psychological or emotional, perhaps cultural) or they may be quite simple (a genuine and rather basic desire just to ‘get stoned’), and secondly that when drug use becomes problematic for the user – or those who come into contact with them – the problem should be dealt with as either a medical or a social one, not a legal one. It is a fact that most crime committed by drug users is directly related to the fact that drugs are illegal in the first place – I don’t mean possession, I mean the behaviour that results from wanting, or needing, to maintain supply of an illegal substance – burglary, theft, violence, lying and deceit. The ‘drug question’ is not new, and it will not go away – it is historic; in short, for whatever reason, people have always wanted to change how they feel and how they look at the world, whether it be through an opium haze or the clarity of a perfect acid trip. Even children know this, as they spin around to make themselves dizzy and fall down giggling, or walk around with their eyes closed to experience the world in a different way.

    Achieving a cultural mindset that accepts drug use as one aspect of human behaviour, no less acceptable or controllable than, say, sexual preference, has been made far more difficult by the years of treating it as a moral or legal matter. But to say it is impossible and therefore not worth aiming for is to offer no solution at all. I think it is a step that must, and should, be pursued.

    I’m not arguing that uninhibited, legal, use of drugs is unproblematic – but that the real problems facing those who ‘choose to use’ go beyond any legal ramifications. I do not know of a single would-be drug user that has been deterred by the knowledge that what they wish to do is illegal. The law is not a deterrent, and if it isn’t one then it can only really be a punishment. If drug use is seen as either a right (of choice) or a medical issue, then punishment is patently absurd and immoral.

    How to administer the legal use of drugs, and provide safe and non-judgemental outlets? I would suggest the most practical approach in the first place might be through prescription. Not that one should have to prove a need, or some ailment to qualify, simply that one expresses a wish to have access to drug A, B, or C and a doctor, or equivalent, then issues a prescription at whatever charge is deemed appropriate – but not so expensive as to allow criminals to undercut it. One immediate benefit of this would be purity and consistency – and most, if not all, major health risks from drug use come about as a result of impure and inconsistent drugs. Another benefit is that drug use would then be associated almost immediately with some sort of medical issue, removing stigma but not giving a wholesale cultural endorsement either. The trouble free long term user can continue in peace and privacy without interference, while those who display problematic use patterns – either physical or mental – are in the best place to receive medical help right from the start. I think this approach is far more sensible than simply opening ‘drug shops’ where a free market approach immediately brings in notions of competition, and rapidly reverts to a quasi-criminal manipulation of the user – god save us from the kind of deceitful advertising campaigns used to promote toxic legal substances, whereby for example one form of alcohol is promoted as being sophisticated and sexy, another as being macho etc etc – we do not need “Mrs Brown’s good old fashioned heroin” versus “Dr Benway’s quick-fix – Smack the way you always wished it could be”.

    NOTE – These are first response thoughts and ideas, and certainly not written in stone – as I said, flexibility and a willingness to adapt ones viewpoint in light of experience are crucial – but I think some of the ideas here are worth consideration, and almost all of them are an improvement on the current unworkable, doomed-to-failure, un-winnable, and maybe ultimately immoral ‘war on drugs’. Any comments or responses extremely welcome.

    • Stephen Bentley Stephen Bentley

      Thank you Tim! Firstly for visiting and more importantly for that wonderful and well thought out contribution.

      I don’t believe we are a million miles apart, but the hardest part of this issue is the “how” and not the “why.” I will be developing my arguments over the course of this series. Please come back and join in again! Best Wishes – Steve

  2. Miguel Angel Miguel Angel

    The Portuguese model does not do anything to take away the drug market from criminals. If the drugs can not be bought legally and with warranted purity a criminal will come forward to offer overpriced and cut drugs. If the concern is that they are harmful then to reduce the harm better to sell them from a legal outlet. Even legal drugs do not harm those who not take them, it is a personal choice.

    • Stephen Bentley Stephen Bentley

      Thank you Miguel and thank you too for “chatting” with me on my ‘Undercover (the book) Facebook Page.’ I totally understand your reasoning but I repeat once more my differences with you and the likes of Neil Woods, for the life of me I just cannot see how a “legal outlet” or regulation by individual states would work in practice.
      That will be addressed in the next part of my series here. I hope you drop by after that is published as I would love to see your response to my thoughts on this thorny issue.

I would love to hear from you!

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